If ever there was a game that highlighted the dilemma of the PlayStation Vita, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is it.
On the one hand, the game is a technical marvel that shows off just how powerful Sony’s portable system is, not to mention how well it replicates the home console experience. On the other hand, it also spotlights the big difference between home and portable gaming and really underlines the question of why, exactly, do we want a full console experience when we’re not at home?
The dilemma dogged me through the full 12 hours or so that it took to get through Liberation’s single-player campaign. I was continually amazed by how much depth Ubisoft had managed to pack into so small a package. Yet, at almost every turn, I kept wishing I could play this fully realized game on my television screen instead.
That’s because Liberation is as much an Assassin’s Creed experience as any of its predecessors. It’s got a deep storyline set in an open world, fleshed out characters, side missions, tons of collectibles and even an economic system that lets players become businessmen of sorts. It’s a solid and complete game, but is it one you want to consume in bite-sized chunks while riding the subway to work? That seems to be a better job for the likes of Angry Birds .
The hero this time around is Aveline de Grandpre, a freed slave living in 18 th century New Orleans who has joined the mysterious Brotherhood of Assassins in their centuries-old struggle against the evil Templars.
Aveline, the first female protagonist in the series, must unravel a Templar plot to control the Big Easy and recover a mysterious artifact. As usual, the story is laced with political intrigue where the hero quietly intervenes in affairs that ultimately affect the course of history.
The action takes place mostly in the city and its surrounding bayou, with a few side trips to more exotic locations, one of which crosses over with Assassin’s Creed III , Ubisoft’s concurrent release for home consoles.
If you’ve played an Assassin’s Creed game before, you’re in familiar territory. Members of the Brotherhood are adept at climbing and free-running, so much of the fun comes from traversing rooftops while trailing suspects or setting up their assassinations. Like Assassin’s Creed III , Liberation adds in the ability to climb and traverse trees, a handy function for avoiding the alligator-filled swamp waters.
The new twist here is that Aveline can take on one of three personas, which are essentially costume changes that confer different abilities. In her main Assassins’ garb, she’s a powerful climbing and sword-fighting force. When posing as a slave, her action capabilities are somewhat curtailed, but she can blend into crowds and incite riots. As Lady de Grandpre, Aveline can’t climb, but she can charm others into fighting for her and she can bribe guards to look the other way.
Aveline herself is an interesting character. With her mixed African and French ancestry and slave background, she has a strong independent streak that manifests itself as an ongoing concern for other disenfranchised slaves. As the game’s title suggests, she joined the Assassin order to fight for the freedom of those slaves, yet as the story unfolds, we also learn she’s searching for her own personal liberation.
The Vita succeeds in replicating the franchise experience, for the most part. The fastest parts of the game – running along rooftops and through trees – work smoothly, with only the occasional animation slowdown. The fights, where Aveline is often surrounded by guards, are also decently fun, although they do often feel cramped and marred by camera problems. The small screen size and the closeness of the buttons on the Vita are the likely culprits in this case.
As in all Assassin’s Creed games, the cities and their surrounding environments are the real stars, and New Orleans and its bayou are no exception. They’re lushly and lovingly animated, with the city feeling as alive with people going about their business as in any of the other franchise titles.
As good as the graphics are, they’re a strong reminder that you’re playing a lower-powered game versus the full home experience. I couldn’t help but think that with a little more work, budget and horsepower, Liberation could have ended up as a game for the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, where it would have looked even better.
This is actually the biggest problem with the game – in its desire to be a big home console game, it forgets its audience, or more specifically, its milieu. Aveline’s various missions aren’t any shorter than those found in the home console games, unlike the windows of time in which players are likely to consume them.
The result is you’ll probably be picking up and dropping out of missions part-way through more often than not. That’s a shame for the story – Assassin’s Creed plots can be tough to follow, and even more so when taken in a few minutes at a time.
There are also some clear afterthoughts, namely the use of the Vita’s various touch controls and sensors. In one sequence, you swipe on the front touch screen in time with Lady Aveline’s dance moves, while in others, you manipulate the rear touch pad to pickpocket strangers.
As bad as these throw-ins are, the worst is a secret letter decoding function that works by holding the Vita’s camera up to a bright light. Saying that it “works” is being judicious – I’m still not quite sure how I got through these malfunctioning parts.
Assassin’s Creed: Liberation also features a multiplayer mode, although I couldn’t get this to work as of release day. We’ll update the review if we’re able to get it up and running.
Superfluous functions and modes aside, there is much to like about Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. It’s a good game that successfully replicates the look and feel of the franchise on the portable Vita. But it’s a little big for the shoes it’s supposed to fill, we’ll call it a case of right game, wrong system.